Monday, June 30, 2014

Alta Alpina: Black and White with a lot of Gray

Stacy, Me and Rich at the foot of Kingsbury!
I wanted to begin this post with "FUUUUCK" or "I'm sorry I wasn't faster" or, even, "What if I'm not able to...". But really, none quite capture the feeling of the Alta Alpina 8-Pass Challenge; or, rather, how I understand it in this very strange-- but lively-- time in my life.   A time when nothing follows a precise definition of itself; a time when I'm not quite an athlete-- but not quite not-one, either. A time when some of my writing is going to be published; but a time when most of it is not. A time when I find myself in a community of "strangers"-- like during an event like an Alta Alpina-- but an event which binds bodies together through the miles, especially the hard ones.

I signed up for this event because my friend/cycling coach, Rich, asked me if I wanted to do it with him and another man. Sure, I'd said-- this was back in April, I think-- when riding 200 miles over 8 passes was more of an abstract idea than reality. My focus, then, anyway was on the Boise Half IM and this was in those hazy gray weeks after the race. A time I hadn't thought much about.

Why not, then, say "sure?" and hope for the best. And I did.

The these things have a way of sneaking up on you. One day you're sitting in your office chair in the gray cubicle at work trading hilariously nasty skyppe messages with your female coworkers and the next you realize "Crap, tomorrow I'm riding 200 miles over 8 Sierra Passes." And if your'e me, you go to Raley's on your lunch break and stare at the aisles of food, wondering what to bring, what to make the magic happen, this time. (Not that the Davis Double OR Boise wasn't a success. It's just I've been struggling trying to find the right nutrition for me, especially in these longer efforts, to keep myself from cramping. But all I did was stare. I ended up with: gluten free bread, freshly ground peanut butter, raw almonds and grapes. Um. Not exactly what I needed, but oh well.

I'd wanted to finish all 8 passes. But this ride presented several unique challenges I can't say I'm particularly equipped to face: an extreme temperature fluctuation (when we began it was near freezing; however, on several climbs soon after, temperatures reached nearly 95 degrees F) and climbs which (despite being from the area) I had neither driven nor ridden.

I have also never not-slept in a bed before an event before. Rich, Stacy and I decided to car-camp at the foot of Monitor Pass-- the base of the final two climbs of the day. Stacy-- before he met me-- said: "I hope we won't have to wait for her!" when he found out I'd be joining the group. Even though he changed his mind after our first conversation, my lizard-brain held onto that counting down the hours at work Friday afternoon in my gray cubicle and also in my head as the Milky Way spiraled into infinite dots of stars above our heads at the base of Monitor Pass.

No waiting for me, I said, and that was the mantra that kept me tossing and turning in that state of near-dreaming.


The morning began at 3:00 am shuffling through the freezing dark. Rolling up the sleeping gear and forcing myself into cycling clothes, hoping I got it all on right and not backwards or inside out.

4:00 am: we arrive at the start/finish (Turtle Rock Park) where I sign in and retrieve my race number. I see, on the corner, that someone (a mystery to me at 4am) wrote: "AN SMC GRAD!" next to my name. I wonder at the smallness of worlds; how sometimes even in a sea of strangers, we can find an expected familiar face.  Another unexpected blessing: coffee. My God, coffee. I'd been worried how I would fare without it.

Then, the last minute details: affixing lights to the bike so we could be seen before the dawn.  Gloves, helmet, glasses. A down-feather jacket for the morning even though Turtle Rock Park felt relatively warm, considering the hour.

By 4:30 am, we were rolling. The blink of Rich's tail light in front of me; Stacy's headlamp like brights on a car, lighting the way. The first descent was mere feet but the temperature plunged. Immediately, I couldn't feel my hands, they were so cold. Then, down from the evergreens and into irrigated fields of alfalfa: my hands froze even more. The only way I knew they were still attached to my body was the fact that I could see them.

Shedding the down jackets en route to Luther Pass.

The sun crested the hills to the east as we reached Fredricksberg and there was hardly anyone on the road but us. A few cyclists here and there: but really, just the sound of early down. The smell of wet alfalfa fields and sage mingled with the damp, crisp air. And then a turn and it was the first climb: Kingsbury.

Too soon, I thought.  I wasn't even awake yet.


Rich told me to slow down on the climb. It was not the last time I'd hear that advice on this ride.

What I remember of Kingsbury: a long, even ascent whose cadence matched the speed of the sun rising. The down jackets were a bit too much on the way up: with each foot gained in elevation, it became warmer out. Soon, I was sweating and I told Rich, jokingly: "I think I'm going to have to buy you a new jacket."

I remember passing other riders. No one passed us. Up and corner: up and corner. Up and up: at the summit we reached the first aid station. "Queensbury" where a friendly and inviting (and very obviously gay) men greeted us with open arms. They were dressed as: queens, fairies, princesses... with wigs and shoes and all.  I remember being so hungry (I'm a breakfast person) that I ate a goopy peanut butter and jelly something and made the biggest mess. I remember hopping on my bike, trying to keep time with Rich and Stacy on the descent, but failing.

But mostly, I remember the cold. How all that speed down the hill made me freeze and how hard it was to start riding, after that.

I'm not trying to be a gigantic wimp: this was one of the unforeseen challenges of the ride. The change in temperatures wasn't something I'd planned on; it wasn't something I'd ever experienced before. In some ways, it is easy to ride when you know it will be "hot" or it will be "cold." That conditions will be black or white. But today, the distinctions blurred while remaining distinct: mountain tops were "warm" at first compared to the valleys; but then, it switched so that mountain tops were cold, valleys were warm. Nothing was stable and everything in question. And yet, to call the ride the area of gray would be misleading.

It was a day of extremes. Of absolute joy and suffering. And that brings me to the next three passes.


This was JOY:  Luther, Carson, Blue Lakes. A dance, if ever there was one, on a bike. Me, I played the part of the little train that could. And hot damn, I did. Up those hills keeping my cadence high. Passing so many bodies. Rich and Stacy fell behind me; my legs turned as if the motion was inevitable. No pain, no fatigue: I was all power and smile.

Me climbing out of Blue Lakes and feeling like a million bucks!

Dawn-time up Kingsbury, morning-time up Luther and Carson, smelling the wet damp of mountain meadows as I passed, wildflowers in bloom beneath the flickering aspen leaves. Alternating sun and shadow up to Blue Lakes, a narrow two-lane road my dad and I drove many times (he took me camping there every summer until I was six years old.) I remembered the road as I rode it; the way the engine of the old 1979 Ford Truck (painted a pale green with an evergreen-colored interior) how it revved and sighed up that hill. And the beautiful meadows filled wind ponds before Blue Lake itself. Memory came back to me with the miles.

And the riders: fit ones, ones with Alta Alpina 8-pass jerseys-- veterans of the event-- and I wondered if I should be passing them. I received compliments, mostly: one man at a rest stop said I looked so strong and wanted to know how many of these I've done. When I told him this was my second, he seemed a little shocked.

I also ran into a rider who'd also done the Davis Double. We chatted at the Blue Lakes rest stop while I waited for my friends. He was once a runner, too.  And in these little moments of recognition, I wonder at the size of the world. So many times we hear about how large it is, how over-populated. But the world of the double-century is small, intimate. It is a world relatively little people enter. After all, you don't know what you're going to find in the pursuit of 200 miles. You will find joy (of course) but there are other things-- parts of yourself, the weather conditions, destiny and/or fate-- that crop or tend to crop up for a distance so long.

How could they not? With all that time to fill, it's inevitable not everything will go as planned. And that brings me to Ebbetts Pass/Ebbetts Pass, Monitor Pass/Monitor Pass-- the most challenging-- and final four (or, for me, three)-- climbs of the day.


Down from Blue Lakes I would nearly get run off the road by a man in an orange jersey.

He wanted to pass us and when he couldn't, he wanted to cut in and take my spot in the paceline Rich, Stacy and I had formed. I am not a small girl, but I'm hardly large, either. I admit, I've had trouble with this on other rides, too: being forced to the side, pushed away, by men.

This is (normally) what it looks like to ride a Double Century with Rich.

Sometimes I wonder if it's a gender-thing: am I really that threatening to someone's masculinity at these speeds? And then I wonder if it's something more like cluelessness: maybe he just wanted to go fast and didn't realize he was riding like an asshole. Anyway, when we turned off highway 88 toward Turtle Rock Park, I tried my best to save myself from a bad situation: I sprinted up the hill into a swarming mass of locusts, colored golden by the sun.

Rich followed me, took the lead.

"I watch out for my girls," he said.

It's nice to have a wing-man.

Back at the car, lunch was: watermelon, nuts, grapes, an ensure and water. Rich didn't want to eat the catered lunch because last year he'd gotten severe food poisoning from it-- but had finished the double anyway. (Yeah, Rich is amazing that way.)

Even though it's a bit daunting to eat fruit and water and think: OK,  I've just ridden over 100 miles, now I'm going to ride 100 more," I felt good leaving the parking lot. My legs, not fresh exactly, but strong: the sun high and hot in the sky.

My mantra: just ride, just ride as we entered the canyon that would lead us to Ebbetts, to Monitor. I lost myself in the sound of the West Carson River and caught myself (more than once) looking off my right shoulder, thinking about wading into its cool current as the temperature continued to rise. It wasn't until a car passed me that I looked over my left shoulder to check for Rich and Stacy.

But behind me was nothing but the open road. Just like the image before me. For the first time that day, I was completely alone. I thought about stopping, waiting.  But I'd just eaten lunch. I wanted to get this climb over with-- and the next and the next-- so that I could finish before dark. And so, feeling guilty and selfish, I kept on, pedaling alone through the metal gate they shut because Ebbetts-- a part of Highway 4-- is so narrow and winding (and steep) that it isn't safe to drive for a good part of the year. Not in summer, of course. But still: I remember driving this way with an old boyfriend (J.) and his explanation of "Cadillac Corner": a man in a cadillac hadn't respected the speed limit after he had his heart broken by a girlfriend. Up and over the side: the cadillac he drove sat poised on the hill for years. A monument of sorts to the kinds of extremes we drive ourselves to in the face of absolute loss.

I don't think the car is there anymore. But then again, on this ride, I didn't (couldn't) look.


I saw a lot these pass-signs on the Alta Alpina. I wish I'd seen one more!
Up. And up. Make a corner and it's a wall of pavement in front of you. No sitting down: out of the saddle because if you don't, you're walking the bike up the hill. That's Ebbetts-- the first time. I saw the man in the orange jersey who'd tried to run me off the road. He was in a group of men I passed early. I remember wondering if he would come after me, be angry with me, say something mean. But nothing: so perhaps my second theory was right. He wasn't mean, just clueless.

Up and up. I wondered how long this climb could be; and how many steep pitches I'd have to negotiate. About 3/4 to the summit, I'd see a familiar face (or, jersey): a Diablo Cyclist-- the ride group I'd latched onto in the East Bay. "Go Diablo Cyclist!" I yelled, because I couldn't make out the rider's face.

It turned out to be Dr. Dave-- not only a friend but a "colleague" at Saint Mary's College where I'd gotten my MFA back in 2012. Next came Jay and I shouted him words of encouragement, too. It made my legs lighter, to see familiar faces. And it explained a lot: on my number for the event, someone had written "An SMC grad in black pen" and I had wondered who that had been. Now I knew (or, I'd figure that out later, when the blood returned to my brain from my legs.)

Up and up. I pass rider after rider. Another, a kind man named George I'd met in Davis and who joined our group near the end of that double century cheered me on.  That encouragement meant the world to me, then, when I felt very alone and unsure of where (and how) I was going.

Up and up. I came up to another rider. Matt P. Another Diablo Cyclist. We chatted. Another boost to my spirt. We rode by a lake. I believed the summit was near. It was; but not as near as I wanted it to be.

I did make it, though, and did my usual at the rest stop: eat, drink, pee, eat more. Wait. When my half-finished Coke was in my hand, Rich appeared, sans Stacy. It was just us two now, for the final three climbs. Fuel up: head down.

Down into Hermit Valley. A narrow 1.5 lane road on the side of a mountain. I stay behind Rich and listen to the sound of his brakes behind the cars. We reach the aid station at the bottom of the hill and it occurs to me it might be nice to stay there for a while. Like, in the ground. Like I'm dead. Because, by this point, I think I am.

Rich is not in good shape, either. We set an easy pace back up the hill-- back to Ebbetts Pass. I try singing songs, telling jokes, but there comes a point in that long, hot climb when I just don't think I'm breathing anymore. And I tell Rich this and he tells me to ride slower. But I can't. I'm in my easiest gear. And we go back and forth for a while before falling into silence.

The moment is what it is.  Rich encouraged every rider we passed by name. I was hanging onto my sanity by a thread: but I admired those women I saw out there so much. Strong bodies, strong minds. How much I wished I was as strong as they were. I was near my breaking point: moving, yes, but feeling as though my bike would fall over and I wouldn't have the strength to pick myself off of the hot, black pavement.

The aid station: I nearly cry, but don't. Rich and I huddle in the shade of a mosquito-infested grass, not-eating, not-drinking. He tells me we will make it. We will go slow.

I nod. I want to believe him. But I know I have reached the point where I don't want to eat or drink. I really don't want to do anything. I don't want anymore peanut butter on stale bread that has air-crust all over it. I don't want watermelon or banana or melon at all. I don't want nuts with salt, pickles or cookies. I especially don't want any more soda or electrolyte drink. My stomach churns in the sea of sugar I've eaten.

I want nothing but to finish. And that can either be a good or a bad thing.


Down Ebbetts. I don't want to fall. I follow Rich's line precisely. He falls behind me when he hit the rolling flats. Later, he'll tell me he was falling asleep on the bike and he was trying not to lose consciousness as we made our way back down the canyon to the foot of Monitor Pass.

I am trying not to think. Or, not to think about the climbs. The miles. The time.

There is an aid station before we go up and Rich and I stop there in the full-hot sun. It is nearly 100-degrees out and I feel the sun baking me beneath the black bike shorts. A friend of Rich's is being carried to a hospital for a fractured collar bone-- a nasty fall-- on Ebbetts. Stacy, our lost member, joins us here and has a car with a cooler; he'll crew for us, he says.

By this point, I just want to stop. I am feeling dizzy and I know I have a saddle-sore that would make a popular youtube video. Rich slumps in the frame of Stacy's minivan, falling asleep with his helmeted head resting on the frame of Stacy's car.

I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to: but there is something wrong with me because I shake Rich and say: "Let's go."

And, we do. Up Monitor. Going slow. Ass burning in the sun like hot, dead, iron. But we are moving.


I decide, heading up Monitor Pass, that I know what Hell (if there is such a place) would be like. It's not a fire-pit. It's not your worst nightmare. No, Hell is beautiful. Hell is where you love.

Or, let me be more clear:

Hell is so beautiful you want to gasp every time you blink.

Hell is the struggle between survival and courage.

Hell is the vista: the heights, the depths.

Riding up Monitor Pass was Hell. Such beautiful country. Such pain. Rich 's shoulders slumped and I know we're fucked. I've got my waves of cramps: they start in the arches of my feet and circulate up my calves, my hips, my deltoids until they find the space behind my knee caps and stay, pulsing.

800 feet from the summit, I take my bottle filled with electrolytes in my hand and take a sip every two pedal strokes, hoping to stop the cramps. The summit takes so much longer than I want it to. In the last stretch, I'm near-crying: I just want to make it, I don't want to quit. I can't see Rich (he's behind me). I talk to myself and I have no idea where any one else is: I just talk nonsense words, I just sip and I try to keep myself from crying.

Go, you go. Think of flowers. How wind is a messenger. Fluid air we swim through. Cliffs were once sea-shores and this will pass, too. Breathe and breathe.  And breathe. And breathe.

I wanted to finish this double so badly. But the wave of cramps-- that pain-- tells me I won't. I won't let myself cry in the saddle, though. However, when we pull into the aid station, I lose it. I sit down in the dirt and the gravel with the wind sweeping over me and I cry- no, I sob. Embarrassing. But I do. I made it. But I won't make it anymore.


They feed me V-8. Pickles. Pickle-juice. It's 6:00 pm and the light is low. One woman in the med-tent with me tells me it is her birthday. Rich is alseep on the cot, not moving. I feel-- what do I feel?-- I can hardly tell. Can I ride? Yes. Do I want to? Not anymore, not really. We are at the top of Monitor Pass and the sun is still out, but low in the sky. Stacy sits in his car, waiting for my verdict.

And it's all up to me: whether we go or we stop. The wind cut across my face as I stood from the chair where the volunteers placed me. Riders; they stopped, They ate. They stared again.

I am not strong. I am not amazing.

I decide not to do any more.  No more miles.

No more climbs. I am done; Rich is done.  Stacy and I load him into the car, first, before we load the bikes. I want to cry but can't: conversation keeps me from my thoughts.

Down Monitor Pass. Down to Turtle Rock Park with the wind from the open window through my hair and I tell myself again and again that 170 miles is enough. That I am enough.

I'm not, I know. I never am.

At the close of night, I pray: maybe one day.


At Turtle Rock Park the mystery of the note on my number is solved: en route to the Sani-hut I run into Jay and Dr. Dave-- my Diablo Cyclist friends from the bay. We trade war stories, catch up on the time we haven't ridden. It's so nice to see them, it almost makes up for not finishing the ride. We pose for what Jay will label as the "SMC Cycling Team" shot before we part ways, going back into our separate lives in the world again.

Me and Dr. Dave, after the ride.

But there will be other Double Centuries, I know. I'm not finished yet.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Race Report: Boise Half Ironman

I'm not sure I'm ready to write this. My skin is tingling, still, from the water, sun and wind. My electrolytes still aren't (quite) at the levels they ought to be. And walking-- well-- it's become an art rather than a science.  But despite all of that I had to write to say that I was wrong: this race has changed me. Or, maybe not just the race itself, but the months leading up to it. In a way, it's like writing: the final draft is never (quite) what you envisioned. More precise in some ways, but the finished product of a long period of revision (necessarily) contains elements of the unexpected. So too, with this journey: when I finished a draft of my memoir three years ago, I thought I'd never run again and that my life as an athlete was over. I know that's definitely not true; but I also know that I am a stronger person than I have given myself credit for; but I am not strong only because of my body. 

Because, in the end, that is not what did so well in the race-- or, in life, actually. 

What got me through was something else. A combination of what I've learned through (oddly) writing and from all the incredible people I've met--and regained-- in the past six months (and that were with me, yesterday, in the race.)  I guess this involves a bit of ancient history: when I signed up for the race last winter I was basically unemployed-- the university had opted not to renew my teaching contract-- and my seven-year relationship had ended. It was the holidays and I was home with my parents trying to remember who I was before my life fell completely apart. And it was a quiet, January morning when I'd woken up at dawn in the room that had been my childhood bedroom with the idea that maybe I could convince myself I was extraordinary if I did something extraordinary (and not a loser, like I thought I was). After all, it wasn't the first time I'd try-- my first marathon back in 2007 had been started by a similar impulse. And so on that cold January day, I'd put on my running shoes and done a seven-mile run in the cold flats of Washoe Valley and thought to myself, again and again, I want to be an Ironman. 

Several teammates had mentioned Boise-- a half-Ironman-- and that seemed like a great place to start. And so, I'd gone home that day and asked my stepmom, tentatively, if she thought I could one day be an Ironman.  Do Kona. Not win, just compete. 

She knows the island well: born and raised on Lanai, she knows the place much better than I: it's mysteries, its challenges. I expected hesitation, a cautionary tale. Instead, she said: "Of course," and after (not) much discussion, I received my birthday present a few days early: my entry fee to the Boise Half Ironman. 

But it turned out to be not just a race, but a new life. 

A life which began with a new teaching job at a local community college and later, a steady, full-time writing job. And, an incredible intellectual and poet who noticed my words on the page and then, well, noticed me! :-) And my athletic life: slowly, day by day and practice by practice (and how much I needed those practices just to keep myself from the dark sadness. The early AM swims, the CompuTrainer sessions: I owe my teammates and cycling friends a HUGE debt of gratitude)... they got me to where I needed to go; kept me focused. Kept me me. 

In any case, I have to say this has been the most amazing [birthday] gift I've ever been given. 

I got my life back. But better.


Of course, there was Scott Young and the UNR Tri Club-- those morning workouts were the only thing that kept me going this winter. Thank you, all, for your friendship and guidance. To Rich Stalely and the whole crew at Great Basin Bicycles: for the countless CompuTrainer classes, the laughs, the miles. To Steve G. and lovely Chloe: for your belief in my words and spirit and to you both for your loud cheers I could hear all the way from Gettysburg. To my wonderful parents both near and far: to mom who watched the race from Smith, Nevada and who said I make her proud. To my dad and stepmom who made the journey to Boise with me to see me cross that finish line. There are more -- so many more-- and I'm grateful for you all. I wouldn't have finished without knowing you wanted me to. 

That and the fact that I finally found that I wanted me to. Not for anybody else. Instead, this was the first race of my life I did--truly-- for me.


The Boise Half Ironman is unusual in that it starts at noon. Every race I've ever done (excluding my "first and only" college cross country meet-, the UNR "Twilight Race- I was 28 and a volunteer coach, running unattached--started at 6 pm or something crazy but it was only a 4k) along with the four marathons, the three half marathons, the other (two) triathlons were all early-morning starts. Usually ridiculously-early, requiring me to wake at 4am so the competition could start by dawn. 

In many ways a race like that is easier than starting later. Sure, you can "sleep in" and "relax" (maybe) before a noon start, there's something to be said for the simplicity of waking, eating and settling straight into competition-mode. At our pre-race dinner, several of my teammates joked that it did not matter what we ate. "You could even wake up with a mild hangover and still do the event," someone joked. I'm not quite sure that's true (knowing how my race went) but the large stretch of time before the race was a challenge in itself. 


Even though my parents came to see me race, I decided it would be best to stay with my teammates Tim and Martine the night before the race. This is, in part, because they invited me and the idea of being around other competitors-- and more experienced ones-- seemed to be a good idea to me. Also: I didn't want to stress my parents out with what are normal pre-race jitters.  They were with me when I got my number (lucky 1001!!) but the rest-- the sorting and packing and re-sorting and re-packing-- the babble of race plans, etc-- that's best reserved for athletes who either do the same thing or don't mind you doing it so much.

Tim and Martine kept me on-track: we would take our transition bags to the correct spot, meeting deadlines I might have (from nerves or whatever) missed on my own. I was able to sleep--motionless, even-- on the extra mattress on the floor of their room because I knew between the three of us and our combined pre-race jitters there was no way we would wake up late and miss the shuttle to the start line. 

But, as we rolled out of bed at 6:00 am, the question du jour presented itself: what do I eat? Do I eat breakfast? How much? My plan had been to eat a normal morning meal and then something snackish around 10:30 am (my start time was 12:39). As I looked around the lobby, filled with triathletes, I noticed no one else-- especially the women-- were eating much. It was a bit hard not to feel guilty about my bowl of eggs, my fruit, my toast, my coffee and I wondered if I was eating too much. I grabbed a banana on the way out for my 10:30 snack (I'd pair that with a bar). 

There wasn't much time: we went to the room, I put on my race suit and made sure my morning bag and bike transition bag  had all my gear in it. I brushed my teeth and peed for the millionth time.  Then the click of the hotel door and Tim led Martine and I to the park where we could catch the shuttle to the start line. Even though the race didn't start until noon, shuttles to the reservoir began at 9:00 am. We arrived at the park just in time for one of the first shuttles-- a school bus-- and we crammed ourselves into the full seats. Looking back, I'm not sure if it was a smart idea or not to go so early. 

The extra time allowed for me to get my transition set-up "right." However, three hours in the sun and heat before a race is definitely not the ideal way to start an endurance event. Or, at least not when you are me and you tend to sweat-- a lot.

In a way, the wait before the start was like a refugee camp. Tim and I huddled behind a dumpster for shade once we'd set our cycling shoes, socks and helmet on the bike. (It was a "clean" transition, meaning NOTHING could touch the ground.) Tim recounted experiences from other races  he'd done laced with tidbits of advice.  The muffled voice of the announcer floated over to our narrow shade every now and then but it was hard to hear exactly what he was saying. Other athletes, too, found our spot and soon we were all huddled close together, trying to get out of the sun. 

10:00 am turned to 11:00 am; 11:00 am to 11:15. The final call for the morning bags floated our way (the morning bag would contain everything we'd worn that morning that we would not need for racing as well as all the things we would want with us at the finish line. I'd used it to carry my wetsuit and cap and goggles. I stood and took off my UNR hoodie that had kept my arms covered from the sun, my Ironman visor my stepmom had bought for me the day before and ... my shoes. 

Did I mention that the transition area was the reservoir parking lot which was a very-black asphalt? The kind that soaks up the sun and burns the bottoms of your feet off? "I can't have my shoes?" I asked no one in particular. 

"Not unless you leave them here," Tracy, my teammate answered me, and she explained that she buys cheap flip-flops just for that purpose. 

So, into the bag my shoes went and the refugee metaphor continues. For the next 45 minutes, I'd walk around barefoot (the area behind the dumpster was rocky and overtaken by other athletes as soon as I'd taken my bag to the truck.)  What also happened: I lost my team in the sudden surge of bodies: we scattered like seeds and in the chaos of triathletes, it was hard to tell who was who. In fact, there were so many of us so close together, I could no longer feel the breeze that had started (that would come up later on the bike). 

30 minutes before the start I'd run into Tim again, half in his wetsuit. He told me to stretch, to keep loose, to do push-ups to get the blood in my arms. "Just don't stand around," he said. So, for the next thirty minutes, this was me: half wet-suited doing quad stretches, hip flexor stretches and five full push-ups over and over and over again.  My legs crying sweat droplets which would slither down my ankles. So much so that competitor #1002 accused me of peeing my wetsuit as we stood in the staging area waiting to be led to the water. 

(Competitor 1002: a blonde with a racing suit the same color-- but not type-- as mine: black with pink and white stripes. She had an aero-helmet and sort of brushed me off when I'd asked how she was setting her transition area up.) 

They would start the race in "waves" according to age group. The pros, of course, were first (the men and then, four minutes later, the women) followed by the 50+ women, 50+ men.... I was in wave 11. This would make the swim... interesting. Or, what kept me out of open water for a lot of years: The fear of being pulled under, unable to breathe. Swimming over and under bodies into the chop of cold water (the water, so cold on my face after being so hot. I panicked on the swim to the start line and I wondered, briefly, if that was the end of my race.)

What do I remember of the swim? The green murk of water and the way a foot or a torso would appear suddenly; the brightness of the sky compared to the dark below me. The way I almost missed the first turn (there she goes, swimming out to blue yonder) the way I passed so many bodies from previous waves before me. The man in the yellow cap breast-stroking. Someone with an orange cap, doing the back stroke. The way one girl who started at the same time I did swam the entire distance at my side. How, every time I felt an arm on my leg how I'd stopped kicking so hard (I didn't want to hurt anyone) and how I only wished those bodies around me the very best. 

As we entered the finishing channel for the swim, the sea of bodies became thick. My underwater view was all feet and bodies and profiles of goggled faces. When my hands touched the concrete boat ramp, I stood and began to run to shore, up the ramp. Goggles off my face and the quick unzip the wetsuit, taking it off my arms as I ran up the  hill to the transition area. At the top, they had "wetsuit strippers" (which was wonderful. I lay down and the man ripped the suit right off me. No wiggling,  no falling. Lovely.) And then running to my bike on the races (in a sea of bikes), stuffing my wetsuit cap and goggles in the transition bag; putting the helmet on my head, the socks and shoes on my feet and running with my bike, running to the place where we were allowed to ride. 

Clipping in. Sipping water: I had a sport gel immediately ("Razz" flavored. One down, two to go following the plan outlined by my coach.)

Drying off on the descent and in the wind which would be a factor later in the race. 

When I think of the bike portion of the race, I think of two things: feeling strong in my aero-position, focusing on pedal stroke and the wind. You can't draft in a triathlon, so you have to keep 4 bike lengths between you and the person in front of you. For the first half of the ride, I was constantly calling out "on your left!" I felt like a human torpedo: all strength and fast and yeeehah!

Three sips into my endure bottle and half a water bottle down: at mile ten I overtake competitor #1002. Driving with her quads, the sleek angles of the silver aero helmet reveal an inefficient pedal stroke with too much lateral motion. I worry she will sprint to catch me, but I hold my pace. 

She doesn't.

Up and down some moderate hills, all with a headwind. Nothing to get worried about. I keep drinking the water, looking for the aid station at mile 15. 


My nutrition plan for this race was to "eat" as much as I could on the bike, making sure I'd have enough in me at the end for the run. To that end, I had emptied two bottles of ensure in a regular bike-bottle filled with ice (to make it cold, yes, but to cut the mixture with water), and a bottle of water I would switch out at every aid station. I also had three goo packets-- according to what my coach said, that would be enough. 

My coach had said that was more than enough. 

But maybe "enough" is not a concrete and immutable thing; "enough" is dependent upon conditions. Between the wind and the heat (or, relative heat.  Upper 70s-80s is not too bad. But, I'm not much of a "heat" athlete since I tend to sweat a lot of salt when it gets warm out) I think my biggest mistake was not having any additional electrolytes on the ride at all. I took in lots of water, lots of calories, but essentially, no salt. But I digress. Right now, I'm still riding strong. Kicking ass, even. I want to revel in that moment. 

The bike course was "rolling" and I can't say anything we covered was a "climb" per se. There was (maybe) one on the way out, something Strava calls "Micron: Can Only do in the 70.3" where I passed just about everybody, feeling like superman carrying Lois Lane from danger. Athletes with those solid-carbon wheels and aero-helmets in their lowest gears. (I felt a special thrill passing souped-up bikes.) I just felt a cadence in my legs-- like the beat of my heart- and stuck with it. (I've been told that's what I'm good at.) I saw a former teammate-- Kara LaPoint-- who is an incredible pro athlete now at the crest of the hill and she looked so strong, so fit-- and I thought maybe one day that will be me. But for that part of the ride, I just tried to be as small as possible (into the wind), to pull up with my hamstrings, to drink water every five minutes or so. 

I will say there was a bottle problem. And maybe I need one of those fancy-bottle things that mount on the bike with a straw, but they had those crappy plastic bottles at the aid stations that were annoyingly loose in my bottle cage: how was I supposed to fit those in there? I had nearly 3 lost bottles on the ride that day-- suicide bottles, I'd call them, wanting to end their usefulness early. 

I caught up to my teammate, Tracy, at about mile 30. "Go, go, go!" she said and I certainly tried. 

So many cycling bodies. Men. Women. The woman at the hotel who'd been eating steak and salad with her non-athletic boyfriend from Vancouver. She was doing the Tahoe full Ironman next year. Her confidence had annoyed me when she said: "I can do whatever. Just throw the bike on a CompuTrainer." And I wondered why I had been annoyed. I wondered, too, when I passed her at mile 40 why that confidence bothered me. 

Maybe I wish I was that confident? I've never said: "OH I can do that" to anything in my life. I have to think about it first. Write about it. Worry about it. Puke about it (OK, not really.)  And I thought as I passed the Canadian in the white, gray and green: maybe I wish I was more like that. More confident. Maybe this race isn't about better, it's about finding you. Your pace, your cadence, your breath. 

Long lonely stretches that didn't look much different than areas around Reno: not a spectator in sight. Just breathe and pedal stroke and drink endure, drink water.  Goo-time. Water time. Time to turn. Don't get too close to the guy in front of you. Drink ensure. Drink water. 

Hope. Don't remember. Remember. Drink. Breathe. Pedal. Forget.


Breathe. Drink. Stroke. Forget.

A dive-bar set back from the road with three men seated in metal folding chairs behind a bland particle board table on the side of the road at about mile 50.

A pack of male competitors, in front of me, riding strong. 

I happen to pass the riding men in front of the drinking men seated at their table. 

The drinking men pound fists on their makeshift table and they make a thump-thump-thump and yell at 3 pm on a random Saturday afternoon: "Go, little Blonde, Go!"   

It's silly: but I remember them and I think: wow, maybe I am something remarkable, sometimes.

At about six miles from the transition from the bike to the run, I'm passed by a petite girl in a white, turquoise and black racing kit. She's wearing an aero-helmet (silver) but of all the people who chose to don that unfortunate cone-head, she's the only one who looks legitimately fast-- and capable-- enough to wear it.  I keep her in my sights and even pass her, once, but once we're into the headwind, she catches me again. 

My bottles are completely empty and I've eaten all my goos. As I turn into the transition area and dismount the bike I immediately think: I'm thirsty. And then I think: what is wrong with my legs? Wobbly, heavy: my body has literally turned to rubber cement. This is made worse by the fact that I know all I have at the next transition are my shoes and race number.  Click-clacking my way to my spot at the racks, I just tell myself again and again that I can do this. In the very least, I can do this. 

Shoes and race belt on: I start my run out of the transition as fast as I can, my legs out of rhythm with my breath, but running. I fall into a pace as I turn onto the busy lane and I’m told by a man on a motorcycle that the number 2 elite man is just behind me. I don’t turn to see who or how fast. This is my race to win, to lose, to finish. 

And then it happens: one mile into the run on a slight downhill: my left quad stops working and rolls itself into a hard little ball.  It happens so sharp and so fast I nearly fall.  A moment of panic: I can’t run, I can’t run, I can’t run. To make the moment worse, the girl in the white, turquoise and black passes me again and I think: there it goes, my race.  I wonder what I should do-- if I should take myself back to the finish line, admit it’s over with. If I should lay down right here, in the warm grass and cry. But before that thought settles in, I know I can’t give up. 

In an instant, the race becomes less about winning than it becomes about something larger. Its not about first place or any place at all. About “winning” or “losing”. This race is about me and all those lonely months and miles when I told myself, again and again, that if I could be strong enough to do this race, I could be strong enough in other aspects of my life, too. I could mend my broken heart enough to love again. I could forgive and forget all the hurt in my life. I could learn a new kind of happiness that is not contingent upon performance, but that settles solidly in the knowledge that this life as it is, is enough. 

I couldn’t let any of that go. I didn’t want to let any of that go. There was too much waiting for me at the finish line: my parents, my teammates, my love, my life. And so, I started limping slowly, telling myself it was only a mile or so to the next aid station. And when I was there, I’d drink and eat as much as I could and limp to the next one. And the next. I would use the aid stations like stepping stones, no matter how slow. 

I was going to finish. I wasn’t going to let myself fail. 

I want this life, I thought. 

It felt so slow, like I was barely moving, but I put one foot in front of the other, thinking about my form, moving smoothly between muscle groups so that my quad wouldn’t spasm and cramp again. And soon, there it was: the orange shirts the race volunteers wore and their lovely cries of: “Water!” “Gatorade!” “Potato chips!” Yes and yes and all of it went down, heavy swallows, nearly choking. My legs felt better, though, and I felt like I moved into a jog. 

In reality, I was going at about 7:00-7:10 pace. Around a corner and the spectators cheered me on-- “You are so fast!” Looking strong!” they said. “Go, Rebecca, go!” One woman shouted (my name was printed on my race bib.) I focused on reaching the next aid station. It came quicker than I’d thought it would. Once again I ate and drank everything they had. Once again, I focused on my legs, landing smoothly. Not going fast: just going. 

All I want to do is finish, I thought. 

Across the bridge at mile 5.5; a race official who looked like one of my students smiled and said: “Damn girl, you are fast.” My heart leapt a little, my feet became lighter. Down the path, I met my teammate Tim at about mile 6 or 7. He wished me well as I passed him, running on. I wondered at how many people I was passing even though I felt so out-of-my-body and on the verge of total shutdown. I lived for those paper cups of Gatorate/Poweraid/Coke.  Stuffing potato chips down my throat as I ran (that’s a skill I admit I haven’t mastered--at all.) 

Soon, I was back where the run started for my second time around. My parents there, clapping, cheering: “Go, Becs, GO!” I knew the terrain I had to cover: nothing hard, nothing I can’t do. I just have to keep going. 

My quad began to throb and tighten; my knee like a ticking time-bomb that might just explode any moment. I was at a near-limp again. This time the aid station seemed impossibly far even though I knew it wasn’t. Keep on going, you, keep on, you can you can. 

I worried I was letting everyone down, running so slow. And then, the thin band of muscle on the inner side of my knee nearly snapped-- a small cramp-- and for the first time in my life, I prayed mid-race, mid-stride: Please God just let me finish. I need to finish this journey. I’m so close. Please let me finish.  I believe.

It was strange what happened next: clouds gathered and covered the sun and the temperature dropped a few degrees. I rounded another corner and the spectators who had seen me run by the first time cheered even louder when they saw me again. They called my name-- they said I looked strong. Me, incredibly; just when I thought I was broken. 

I counted down the final four miles with the old mantra: how many times in your life have you run four miles? Three miles? Two miles? And finally: how fast can you run this final mile? Up and around a turn, I attacked the rest of the distance with everything I had, passing a guy in the final half mile of the race. The announcer even commented on my speed at the end “...what a great finishing kick from Rebecca Eckland from Reno, Nevada!” and I crossed the line. 

I didn’t cry but I could have: I finished. 

I have never been so grateful for anything in my life (especially anything so uncomfortable.) Looking back, it was a stupid mistake not to have salt tablets with me.  But I am, in a way, grateful I didn’t have them: I was forced to look tragedy and probable failure in the eye and recognize that I had a choice. I could give up, or I could find a way to cross the finish line. 

In this race, I got to see the stuff I’m made of. I didn’t give up. I didn’t despair. I didn’t even cry. I simply came up with a plan and did the very best I could, given the circumstances. 

And maybe that’s what we are in search of, those of us who toe the starting line of these incredible races. We need to go the distance to find our depths. 



Finish Time: 4:49
Placement/Age Group: 1

Placement/Overall: 11

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Drive Before the Race

Boise Half Ironman: Part I (To the starting line) 

To travel to the starting line of my first 70.3 I had to travel back in time-- turning East on I-80, a thick ribbon of pavement which leads out of Reno-- a stretch of road I haven’t driven for nearly fifteen years.  Call me crazy, but it’s hard not to get nostaglic-- or to remember, anyway-- all those trips back and forth between Reno and Spring Creek, back when I was an athlete, back when I was young. 

I think part of the reason all this comes to mind is my parent’s presence: half the reason I made the trip so often was to visit my dad and stepmom who have always (at least in terms of my lifetime) lived in Reno. That they are coming to Boise with me to cheer me on is something like coming home again; or becoming home, if that makes any sense. 

I used to know this stretch of I-80 well: Wadworth to Fernley to Lovelock (past the prison) then Imlay, the exit to Unionville and Winnemucca.  It’s vast and empty-- not that I didn’t remember it that way-- but seeing is something different than memory, it has less shadows, perhaps. 

These were the final legs of my journey if I was driving alone and on my way to see my dad for the weekend when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. Or, they were the stops we always took on the yellow school bus (no matter what the sport team: we always stopped at the Flying J in Winnemucca where the”treasures” you could buy in the truck-stop convenience store mesmerized us after all those hours spent on the dark expanses of east I-80 before or after a game/race/event.)

As we pulled into Winnemucca yesterday, I heard our old commentary: the reason why we never stopped at the Burger King at the top of the hill (next to the largest cemetery in the middle of a town I’ve ever seen. Apparently, a lot of people come to Winnemucca to die): “where else would they get their meat?” 

Today, I repeat those old jokes to my dad and stepmom, and we, too, avoid the Burger King (not that we are Burger King people.) Instead we stop at the cafe in the Model T-- the mini-casino across from the cemetery-- for lunch. A bit over 300 miles to go: I didn’t realize how far it was to Boise. 

And maybe that statement is telling: Look how far I’ve come -- and how far I have to go. 


I’ve said I haven’t changed-- days (a day) from the race, I don’t think that’s true. I think I have changed in one very important way: I’m not afraid anymore. This doesn’t mean I’ll jump in front of cars or left heavy objects from people trapped beneath them: but I will put a wetsuit on and swim in open water because it is something I do, something there’s no reason to be afraid of anymore. 

I will also invite and cherish these moments I share with my family. So what if I don’t do so well? It isn’t about that, necessarily: I don’t fear my own failure, wondering what every one will think of me. Instead, this is a race that is ABOUT me but also OUTSIDE of me. A mile-mark to measure eight months of solid training, yes. But it cannot possibly represent all those hours and days. I carry those with me, moving forward to the next event. 

Because there will not only be one, but many. 

I am an athlete, after all. And I've already started envisioning myself crossing other lines, bigger lines, longer lines. Again and again. 


We survive Oregon. The route to Boise-- highway 95, cuts across Oregon’s lower right corner (a.k.a. the “bowel” of the state.) Or, so it seemed when the speed limit dropped to 55 on that narrow two-lane highway and the landscape was (if this is possible) more bland than the sort you see en route to Winnemucca. 

We literally cheered at the Idaho border (who thought I’d ever do that?) when the road widened and the world turned a friendlier shade of green. Undulating terrain, canyons and farmland replaced the brown, flat monotony. And it was hard not to be excited with less than an hour of driving to go. 


I haven’t picked my race packet up yet; that’s the first thing we’ll do today (Friday). Instead, we spent the night telling both old and new stories: stores from generations back but we end the night by looking at the story that’s left to unfold (this race) prompted by my bike, propped by my bed looking something like a promise.

The entire race is only a bit over 70 miles, I keep telling myself. A distance I’ve ridden many times; the swim a bit over a mile (less than practice!) and the run, two 6.6 mile laps where my goal is to complete the second faster than the first, with an old-Rebecca style finishing kick (a sprint) decorated with a smile ("I'm back," I can finally say.)  

Nervous isn’t the word: what I feel now is something more like excitement. Happiness. Or, maybe not quite yet. One thing I do know: I'm certainly not afraid.